In his attempt at Triple Crown history, American Pharoah faces many of the same challenges California Chrome did a year ago. The toughest will be a field of fresh horses in the last leg of a three-race, five-week series.
In Saturday’s 147th Belmont Stakes, American Pharoah will attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. His odds may be 2-5, but he’s far from a sure thing. Five of his seven rivals have rested since chasing him home in the Kentucky Derby.
Only American Pharoah will run in all three jewels of this Crown. Which means, like Chrome, Pharoah may be vulnerable to rivals who haven’t fought the same battles.
Chrome’s co-owner, Steve Coburn, compared it to an ambush and questioned its fairness. But most horse people wouldn’t change a thing about the Triple Crown; the Test of the Champion is supposed to be tough.
Among that latter group is trainer Bob Baffert, who will make his fourth attempt at the sweep since 1997.
“If you’re going to win the Triple Crown, you’ve got to be a great horse,” Baffert said. “That’s what we’ll find out.”
Baffert likely can recite these stats from memory: It’s been 37 years since Affirmed beat Alydar to become the 11th Triple Crown winner. That capped a golden age of American racing with three Triple Crown winners in six years: Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978).
Since Affirmed, the 13 horses that won the Derby and Preakness failed to complete the sweep. In 2012, I’ll Have Another scratched the night before the Belmont with a minor injury and was retired. Four others finished second, including Baffert’s Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998).
Last year, California Chrome was fourth behind Tonalist, who did not compete in the Derby or Preakness.
That drew the ire of Coburn, who blasted the Triple Crown process. He later apologized, but his remarks were not forgotten.
“It might not have been too politically correct, but I said, ‘Well, this guy hadn’t been 100 yards out of the cow pasture,’” recalled Dr. Jim Hill, Seattle Slew’s owner, of his reaction to Coburn’s statements. “He just didn’t understand what racing was all about.
“I don’t think there should be any changes. It’s supposed to be a tough thing to do, and I think each race stands on its own. You might say that the Derby has too many horses in it when you have a field of 20. Some horses don’t have an opportunity to show their best.”
Although the Derby uses a point system to determine its 20-horse field, the Belmont usually has room for lightly raced nominees.
Once avoided by trainers, the Belmont has become a major race beyond the Triple Crown. It’s a Grade I stakes worth $1.5 million, and its unique 11/2-mile distance proves stamina and adds stallion value. New York-based trainers also feel home-track advantage at the unusual course where they train daily.
And owners already have paid to get in; since 1986, the nomination process for the Derby includes automatic nomination to the Preakness and Belmont. That has more than doubled the potential field of candidates. Belmont nominations rose from 187 in Secretariat’s year and 268 for Affirmed’s generation to 429 nominations this year.
Although the Derby uses a point system to determine its 20-horse field, the Belmont usually has room for lightly raced nominees like 2014 winner Tonalist. Madefromlucky, a stakes winner at Belmont Park in May, followed a similar route into this year’s field.
After losing the Derby, trainers don’t have the same incentive to run in the Preakness two weeks later. They return to the way they usually prepare their horses, waiting five weeks to run again, and that wait coincides with the Belmont.
“I don’t blame them (for waiting),” Baffert said. “If they don’t feel like they can handle (Pharoah) two weeks later (in the Preakness), why not wait, freshen up a little bit, and basically catch him when he’s already pitched eight innings. So, maybe we can take a little bit of the fastball away from him. They know he’s a really tough horse. So, I don’t really blame them for that. That’s just part of the Triple Crown and that doesn’t bother me at all.”
And after running in the Preakness, American Pharoah may be getting tired. Undefeated in 2015, the bay colt has won four stakes in three states, a string starting March 14.
But if he’s exhausted, he’s not showing it, Baffert said. American Pharoah has held his weight and kept a positive attitude. The trainer could tell by the way his horse strides over the track during morning gallops.
“When he gets his ears forward and he’s enjoying it and springing around there like a big kangaroo – we want to see that,” he said.
147th Belmont Stakes
Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.
When: Post time 3:50 p.m. Saturday
TV: 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 3
Watch and wager: Cal Expo will host its own Triple Crown party with a live simulcast of the Belmont Stakes, plus other races. For $38, patrons can get a reserved spot in the Cal Expo clubhouse, official program and two buffets (breakfast and lunch). Doors open at 9 a.m. Call (916) 263-3279 for reservations. General admission to the simulcast center is $4.